Subnautica has been in development for over four years, and has been in Steam’s Early Access program for nearly as long. With it, Unknown Worlds Entertainment, best known for their Natural Selection series, has moved away from team-based shooters and into the survival genre. Released into early access when a glut of open-world survival games were flooding the market, I dismissed it as “just another” survival game with a water gimmick. I usually despise “water levels” and a game that forces you to be aquatic didn’t seem the most appealing. How wrong I was.
Unlike most other games in the genre, Subnautica has no multiplayer. Instead Subnautica focuses on solo survival, base building and braving the deep – which holds many terrors. You are the sole surviving member of the Aurora, a 22nd century corporation’s spaceship sent out into the furthest corners of controlled space only to be hit by an energy pulse, crash landing on a planet that is almost entirely covered in water. This fact is made clear when you emerge from your escape pod to see nothing but the wreckage of the Aurora and open water. You are forced from the very beginning to dive in and brave an ocean teeming with life, and rife with danger.
Subnautica takes a lot from the survival genre, but puts you in an environment which no other survival games capitalized on: open water. Luckily, your 22nd technology makes converting surrounding matter into useable resources in a way that feels reminiscent of Star Trek. In fact, the sci-fi technology in the game helps to remove the suspension of disbelief most survival games require when combining items, or constructing buildings. The array of tools you have at your fingertips is also impressive, but not always useful. I found myself skipping over some early game items entirely for their more useful counterparts. The base building in Subnautica is fully realized, and can be a massively fun part of the game. I challenged myself to build a huge, underwater dwelling that could provide fresh water and renewable food for myself. The base building features are extremely robust, and allow for you to build in almost any environment – even the most hostile. I found a challenge in building habitats in the most inhospitable locations I could find – just to see if I could. Sometimes base building can have its frustrating moments – pieces not connecting easily, and some inconvenience with having to (very rarely) deconstruct entire buildings if you misplace a foundation or wall fixture. But these problems were few and far between, and I found much joy in just building these habitats and taming the most inhospitable undersea biomes.
Oxygen is ever a concern in Subnautica, as your initial O2 tank holds less than a minute of oxygen. Soon, you’ll find that you’ll need to leave the shallows and dive deeper and for longer periods to explore the real depths of your environment. Luckily, in addition to o2 Tank upgrades, you can construct vehicles to help you get around. You’ll probably start off by building a handheld device to help glide through the water, eventually graduating to a fully-fledged 178 foot submarine that you can dock smaller vehicles in. And while you have some tools that can also be used as weapons, your role is mostly that of a passive observer. Even with a submarine at your disposal you’re still at the mercy of the larger, “leviathan-class” creatures that inhabit deeper waters.
The amount of creatures in Subnautica is impressive, and makes the ocean feel like it’s absolutely teeming with life. Some creatures are passive, but others definitely want to eat you. Some can be fought and killed, but most can only be scared away or avoided at best. This definitely makes you feel like you are low on the food chain, and makes diving into Subnautica’s depths a terrifying experience. Even with my now extensive playtime, I tense up when diving into dark, murky waters – especially if I can hear the bellows of a Reaper Leviathan nearby. There are multiple different biomes you’ll find yourself in : kelp forests, sandy dunes, grassy plains, deep underwater caverns lit by bioluminescent flora and fauna – among many other marine environments. Once you outfit yourself with a Cyclops submarine or the mechanized Prawn suit, you can upgrade your maximum crush depths to see the extent of Subnautica’s underwater world. There is a lot of verticality in Subnautica, with a good amount of this alien world to explore both in shallower depths, and in the very deepest parts of the part of the ocean you inhabit.
There are multiple different play modes to experience Subnautica. While in all modes but creative you have to manage health and oxygen, “survival” mode is perhaps the “default mode,” adding in hunger and thirst. A hardcore mode which makes player death permanent. “Freedom” mode removes the need for food and water, and a “creative mode” eliminates the story, hunger, thirst, etc. and just lets you build and explore as you wish. There is no conventional “sand box” mode, as the story is woven throughout the experience (except for creative mode). You can pay as little or as much attention to the story as you’d like, but you’d be absolutely remiss to ignore it. It is one of Subnautica’s best features.
A lot of survival games force you to find your own fun, or make your own objectives. Subnautica’s story goes hand-in-hand with your need for progression and exploration making it the absolutely best-paced, well told, and amazing story I’ve experienced in a survival game. It really is that good. I’m intentionally not spoiling any aspect of Subnautica’s story – I went in totally blind, and I feel like it really is best experienced that way. This speaks to another of Subnautica’s strengths: everything felt so intuitive, I never really needed to look anything up. During some survival games, I’ll find myself looking up recipes, or how to obtain a certain item, but Subnautica’s in-game database is so comprehensive, it’s hard to completely miss out on information – especially with the dry, sometimes funny AI apprising you of unique or new situations you may encounter. The pacing of the story is nearly flawless, and it’s always pushing you to the next thing and out of your comfort zone.
The excellent pacing of Subnautica’s story, and the story itself, makes it feel like an absolutely complete game – something that most games leaving “early access” struggle with. Unlike more cinematic story-telling, Subnautica’s story is given as short audio/text snippets, or through exploration. The pacing is excellent, ensuring you’re never really stuck. It’s true that you may not know exactly what to do next, but there are always clues being left to guide you (sometimes subtly, sometimes not) to the next point of interest in the story. Of course, you can always ignore this and work towards survival in your own way –but the clever part is: you often find that working towards your own survival happens to move the plot forward on its own. If a game has a story I will complete it to review a game. Sometimes with open world survival games, the story is something that grounds the player and adds context. Subnautica’s plot was an obsession. I didn’t want to find out what happened for completion’s sake: I was absolutely compelled to finish it, even at a detriment to my own health. Subnautica became an obsession.
There is some of Subnautica that doesn’t always feel completely finished. I’ve run into a few bugs that, while not game breaking, were certainly annoying. Some of the most obvious lack of polish also happens towards the end of the game, but by that time I was so invested in it that I was able to forgive these small issues.
Subnautica is a surprise, and easily the best game I’ve played so far this year. Go into it blind if you can, but even with spoilers there is a ton to experience for yourself. Developer Unknown Worlds Entertainment has poured lots of love into this game and it shows, with its polished gameplay and great story told in an amazingly minimalist way. The Steam version is full release, with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions destined to reach full release eventually, with no dates set. Either way, Subnautica is available to play now on Windows, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. It is also compatible with HTC Vive and Oculus Rift VR headsets for immersive, submarine terror.